river-89180_1280The flow state is the key to developer productivity. Getting into flow, where the developer seems to enter a state of hyper productivity by removing context switching related to distractions, has been determined to be one of the best ways to achieve high throughput from development team. To create a flow state, the environment in which the developer is working needs to be clear of distractions allowing them to focus on the task at hand, and get really engulfed in the now of the problem. Several studies have shown the costs of context switching to be huge, sometimes resulting in delays of 15-45 minutes while the person can get back “into” a problem or algorithm they were working on after an interruption.

Here are four ways your organization can create greater opportunities for your employees to enter into a state of flow.

  • Remove Electronic Stimulus – if flow is the hero of the story on developer productivity, then the bad guy has to be email. Most email is worthless and a drain on time, but even worse is the perception that email needs a timely response. Change your organizational attitude towards email by eliminating the perceived requirement of being available to email 24×7. Instead, allow your developers to turn off that email and check it at regular intervals instead, perhaps for 15 minutes in the morning, before you leave and perhaps once after lunch. If your employees are sending or reading more than 45 minutes of email every day, it’s too much. Also turn off the IM – make yourself Do Not Disturb. If they need you for a priority 1 type emergency, they will call your cell phone. Don’t worry.
  • Create No Meeting Blocks – the organization needs to create windows of long, uninterrupted time for the developers to get into flow. Back to back meetings with one hour windows between is almost worse than all day meetings on developer productivity, because the code resulting from those 45 minute blips will be disjointed and result in a ton of rework. Block out time for the developers, start with Mon-Wed-Fri between 9-2 and see what happens to your productivity. Oh, and no meetings on Friday.
  • Make Flow Visible to Others – back when everyone had an office, if you needed to get into flow, you just shut your door. With open offices and floor plans, it’s now difficult to shut yourself off from interruptions. The organization needs to setup some identifiers to allow potential interrupters the ability to stop themselves. The headphone rule is a good one, where if someone has headphones in, do not disturb them. Some workplaces have flags at their desk to tell everyone if they are open to interruptions. Whatever methods you choose, make them visible and well known to all so instead of breaking someone’s flow, they can read your email later.
  • Empower Pushback – for all but the highest priority items, such as outages, the team members should be able to rebuff interruptions. Let’s be honest, some players in your office don’t feel like the rules apply to them and will often break protocol at any time to fit their needs. The organization needs to empower the developers to push back. A polite response of “I’m in flow, please send me an email” to these interruptions gives the developer the ability to get back to the task without issue. But persistent violators will need to be handled by management and the organization must empower their managers to call out violators and get them to respect the rules.

The suggestions above are a few ways to quickly gain productivity in your workplace but implementing these are sometimes difficult to manage, as non-IT folks who use email as their work queues and are used to getting immediate responses may revolt at the perceived delays in their own productivity. This organizational behavior change must be something that not only comes from the top down, but is also something needing respect from every level in the organization. If the VP decides to break protocols, it’s difficult to enforce it on the directors and so on. So remember, unless it’s an outage send an email and they will get back to you after they are finished. I promise.